In its fewer than 90 minutes, whether you know, or think you do, the real-life story of Dana Higginbotham, about her five-month abduction and torture, over her famous playwright son transforming the horror into art and testimony, and about the actress who gives voice to unimaginable trauma without uttering a word, Lucas Hnaths Dan A. will throw you again and again.
Dana H. is, as much as anything, a perfect example of the strange and unexpected space created on Broadway by oblivion-reduced productions like Tina Satters equally captivating Is This A Room they share, on alternate nights, the stage of The Lyceum Theatre. I cant say for certain that these two plays, short in length and experimental in form, found their way onto Broadway because of a less fierce rivalry for roofs, but I may, without hesitation, applaud their arrival, however it came to be.
I mentioned that the actress Deirdre OConnell -doesnt speak, but thats not entirely true, and I was reluctant to use the phrase lip-sync too soon. The art forms usual connotation of comedy and/or deception does not hold here. OConnell and Dana H. capture both the specifics of one womans trauma and something universal about the all-encompassing nature of abuse and its survival, using actual interview tape recordings in which Higginbotham details her ordeal.
Dana Higginbotham, a psych ward chaplain in Florida whose rough-and-tumble background helped her create 'speciality niche' among mental patients, meth addicts, and ex-convicts who needed her assistance, had recently divorced her husband, sent her only child Lucas off to New York University and lost her job with an evangelical Christian facility that prohibited divorce.
In short, she was alone and isolated, an ideal target for the man Dana H. identifies only as Jim, a meth-addicted, prison-tattoo-covered, severely disturbed ex-con raised from solitary confinement in the criminal underworld of White Supremacy and violence. After Dana offers him kindness and recuperation following a terrible suicide attempt, raving Jim shows up at her home one late night, beats her unconscious and abducts she, an event told in painful detail, made even more terrifying by the revelation that it was only the beginning of countless cheap motels and criminal way stations.
Danas son Lucas Hnath, now an acclaimed and famous playwright whose works include A Doll s House Part 2 and Hillary and Clinton, asks a third-party namely 'Steve Cosson, aka renowned Off Broadway writer and director - to conduct dozens of interviews with Dane, who feels ready to publicly disclose her story. These are the recordings we hear in Dana H.
Dana H. takes place in a perfectly recreated Florida motel room, designed by Andrew Boyce as 'a sort of cloister in pinks and pale greens that immediately says, "Florida" and, more slowly,, prison." OConnell, sitting and facing the audience, mouths Higgenbothams words and, rather miraculously, conveys through facial expressions and nervous movements the rush and swirl of emotions that underlie her tamped-down, shell-shocked verbal delivery.
Dana explains in a similar fashion how Jims first encounter with the outside world unfolded under her control:
One of the very first things that ever happened was going to a pawn shop and he wanted sledgehammer. Hes had his hand on my neck the whole time, almost everywhere we were his arm was always on me. And he says straight ahead to the man, I cant buy it...Im a felon, but shes going to buy the thing. And the man said, oh ok,'
And so begins a pattern that will repeat itself over the next five months, recurrent cycles of abuse and control that appear to be stumbling blocks between abuser, victim, and the outside world, making Danas story so difficult to grasp. Dana knows full well, from her days in captivity to the years after escape, the questions that will haunt her forever: Why didnt you run away? Why didnt you scream for help every time you encountered a store clerk, were taken to an emergency room, or were pulled over by the police?
Consider it the masterwork of Dana H. that, by the end of this play, all but the most stifling of listeners will no longer be compelled to ask those questions. Dana/Higgenbotham takes a look at Jims status in the White Supremacy organization, which has gotten deep into the nation s prison system and beyond if she is correct, it resulted in one cop after another taking 'a hands-off approach when confrontes with armed and bloodied women.'
But Danas words, and OConnell soaring and vulnerable performance, go to a deeper level of why and how. Her witty account of a five-month waking nightmare binds us so deeply into the psyche of abuse that we begin to comprehend the complete surrender, the no-way-outness.
When escape arrives, it seems the most bizarre moment of the play and this is no criticism - as a motel maid tidys the newly-vacated room, sheets bleeding, lights suddenly flickering, and the many recordings of Danas voice overlap into ear-splitting cacophony, resembling if not for starring in NBCS Twin Peaks. (Credit to Mikhail Fiksel and Paul Tobens incredible sound design).
That moment of surreality and confusion not only reflects the character's mental state, but it also demands we pose some tough questions about the narrator' s credibility and the fluidity of perspective. Does the motel maid played by the only actor other than OConnell to take the stage - not notice the red splatter on those white sheets? Is she simply accustomed to what must be, in her life, a common sight? Like so many of the people who meet Dana and her tormenter, the maid probably notices.
Or maybe she doesnt care. The terror comes in realizing that it does not matter in any way.